Because of a gloomy revenue picture, the state of Washington needs to cut $2 billion from its budget. That’s a lot, considering all of the painful carving that has occurred in recent years. But it’s even more daunting when you learn that only about $8.7 billion of the $32.2 billion budget is available. The rest has been spent or is protected by constitutional, legal or contractual obligations, according to the governor’s office. This includes spending on such items as Medicaid and K-12 basic education.
Of the unspent $23.8 billion, two-thirds is protected. So what looks at first glance like a 6 percent cut is really a 23 percent cut – or nearly one in every four available dollars.
That big gulp you hear is from agency heads and elected state officials who have been asked by Gov. Chris Gregoire to come up with specific ideas on what to cut (across-the-board offerings are discouraged). Nobody is happy with this. Nobody is prepared to justify the cuts on their own terms. However, the work must be done to meet the state’s constitutional obligation to balance the budget, so these leaders submitted their plans by Sept. 22, with one notable exception.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn sent a letter to the governor stating that he could not in good conscience offer up any cuts, because that would violate a different portion of the constitution – the part that calls “basic education” the state’s “paramount duty.” The parameters of that language remain tied up in court.
Dorn knows this is a symbolic protest. The cuts will be made by lawmakers in a special session, but he says he must take a stand. That’s unfortunate, because Gregoire has urged legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle to refrain from drawing battle lines. They will need open minds when they convene next month.
Few people would disagree that K-12 spending reductions could hurt the quality of education. However, Dorn’s posturing is counterproductive, because he is in the best position to recommend cuts. Plus, his interpretation of the state constitution is debatable.
As if the current challenge weren’t enough, the state is getting hit with lawsuits over previous budget cutting. For instance, the state began cracking down on serial users of emergency rooms for routine care. About 3 percent of ER users abuse Medicaid coverage in this way, and it’s expensive. But some hospitals have filed a lawsuit, saying patients might self-diagnose and skip needed care. In another example, the Retired Public Employees Council is suing over pension changes.
If the state loses these cases and others, it will have to produce more cuts elsewhere.
Everyone needs to take a breath and remember that nobody ordered up this rotten economy, nobody likes these cuts – but they must be made. Cooperation is needed now. Individual battles can be waged another day.